By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Weschler is not blind to the factors that are making his kind of journalism increasingly rare. "In fairness," he said, "there is this incredible pressure on people's time that didn't used to exist. One of the reasons that it's becoming harder for this kind of journalism to find a place is the decline of the one-income family. Say what you will about the miseries, the horrors of the husband going to work, the wife going out of her mind with boredom in suburbia - and the New Yorker short story was the primary place where that story was told - come Friday afternoon, the housework was done, and both the husband and wife had the weekend to lie on the hammock and read long stories. Now there's just less and less time."
Weschler paused for a moment. "It's not like someone evil is doing this," he said. "But, having said that, it is a crisis of the republic. It's not just confined to magazines. It's across the board."
Still, it doesn't look like Weschler's about to give in to market forces and start profiling celebrities yet. Vermeer in Bosnia, he says, will be a study of the relationship between culture and terror. The book's seed can actually be found in the final section of Calamities, which is about the exiled Afrikaner poet and painter Breyten Breytenbach, who ran afoul of South Africa's apartheid regime when, in the 1970s, he returned to his native country as an anti-apartheid secret agent. At the beginning of his piece on Breytenbach, Weschler recalls going with him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they looked at one of the Vermeers. The painting, of a woman in a blue dress, was, in Weschler's words, "the very essence of lucid grace and tranquillity," but Breytenbach had noticed something else about it: not just the date (1660), but a map of Holland on the wall behind the woman, where tiny boats could be seen bobbing off the Dutch coastline. "It's hard to believe that from all that serenity . . . emerges the Boer," Breytenbach said. And then, pointing an accusatory finger at the boats, he added: "Look, that's them leaving right now!"
Weschler loves this story. He told it to me during our conversation at Vroman's, and he repeated it the following night at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where he was lecturing on Breytenbach. The first person he told it to, in 1986, was New Yorker editor William Shawn. Shawn had sent Weschler out to do a "Talk of the Town" piece on the International PEN Club's annual congress, taking place that year in New York. Breytenbach had been one of the stars of the conference, but when Weschler approached him for an interview he claimed to be all talked out and suggested they go look at paintings instead. While Weschler told Shawn the story, the legendary editor listened silently, then nodded his head. According to Weschler, that nod meant, "This Breytenbach fellow is obviously too interesting for a short article. Spend as much time writing about him as you want, and use all the expenses you need."
Six years later, Weschler handed in the 25,000-word article, having first written the other two pieces in Calamities of Exile. Though it has only just arrived in bookstores, the book already feels like the product of a different era.